Hollywood Loses a Vietnam : Indian Dunes: TV and movie producers mourn the impending new role of the popular Valencia shooting location.


Vietnam is leaving Valencia.

Indian Dunes, the popular 200-acre movie and television location just north of Six Flags Magic Mountain, will turn from filming into farming by the end of the year. From stargazing to cattle grazing. From sets for “China Beach” and “Call to Glory” to land for barley and broccoli.

Lisa Rawlins, director of the California Film Commission, has already fielded complaints from numerous production companies who had hoped to film at the site--two miles west of the Golden State Freeway and east of California 126. Rawlins said the jungle-like overgrowth and creek tucked in the middle of brown desert terrain “has a great Vietnam look.”

And it has a tragic history. In 1982, actor Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed by a helicopter during the filming of a Vietnam War battle scene in the film, “Twilight Zone.”


The incident brought publicity and lawsuits--director John Landis and four others were acquitted of manslaughter charges--but didn’t diminish the attraction to Indian Dunes.

In recent years, Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” (1985), and Jack Nicholson’s “The Two Jakes” (1990) have staged scenes at the site, and ABC’s “China Beach” does most of its location shoots there. The TV movie and series “Call to Glory” used Indian Dunes from its debut in 1984 until it was canceled a year later.

Larry Franco, executive producer of Disney’s “Rocketeer,” which wrapped up shooting last week as the final film to use Indian Dunes, said the site afforded filmmakers plentiful options. “It was a place with all kinds of freedom,” Franco said. “You have wide open spaces, and you can easily stage pyro effects.”

Indian Dunes is also prized, Franco said, because nighttime scenes can be filmed without city lights showing in the background, plus there’s a long landing strip. “You can be high up,” he said, “and not see anything behind it. And you can’t land a glider on a real roof in a big city.” “Rocketeer,” due to be released next year, tells the story of a World War II aviator who discovers a rocket pack, allowing him to fly anywhere.


The ABC-TV drama “China Beach” began filming at Indian Dunes in 1988, its debut season. Rob Harland, the show’s production executive, said it will miss the running stream that helped lend the location its Southeast Asia appearance. “It was hard to find that water, and it will be hard to duplicate it, especially in the zone,” Harland said.

The “zone” is the studio zone, the imaginary line 30 miles from Beverly and La Cienega, the former headquarters of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who negotiate labor contracts with the studios. Once outside the zone, companies have to pay union cast and crew transportation costs. Production executives will do everything possible to shoot their movies within the zone, which made Indian Dunes so attractive.

“It’s a huge factor,” said Franco, who also produced “Escape From New York” in 1979 at Indian Dunes. “If you’re not in the zone, it becomes an ordeal to transport people to the location area. Then you have to pay for their time to drive to the location, and you get behind on your shooting day. Indian Dunes is expensive, but by being close, it far outweighs the cost of shooting there.”

Harland said companies might have to make compromises to offset the loss of Indian Dunes. “China Beach,” for example, might be forced to shoot without the stream next year.


Added Franco: “You have to ask yourself if it is worth it to shoot something outside the zone versus L.A.”

Lindsley Parsons Jr. may not shoot anywhere. His scheduled film, “The Day Before Midnight,” based on a novel by Stephen Hunter, has been delayed, and may never start production. Parsons, the producer, spent thousands of dollars and more than two months searching Western states for the ideal site for his story about a terrorist group who seizes control of a United States missile site. In July, he settled on Indian Dunes.

“I sent location scouts to almost every Western state,” Parsons said, “and had stills sent back from all over the country. Indian Dunes worked for us. I photographed it from the air. I went there many times by car. I made sketches. It had water, brown hills, cliffs. It had a place where we could build a missile site.”

Already, Rawlins said, the commission has begun searching for alternative filming sites. She said one of them, the Polsa Rosa ranch in Acton, which has already been used for episodes of the daytime TV soap opera, “Santa Barbara,” offers many of the natural advantages of Indian Dunes, such as mountains and greenery. But she admits that it’s not another Indian Dunes. “In terms of sheer size for the mesas that Indian Dunes has, you can’t truly match it.”


Marlee Lauffer, a spokeswoman for the Newhall Land & Farming Co., which owns Indian Dunes, stressed that the company has 10,000 other acres in the Valencia area available for filming, but, according to Rawlins, “it doesn’t have the unique appeal” of Indian Dunes.

Until the early 1980s, mostly commercials were shot at Indian Dunes, Lauffer said. The television show, “Rawhide,” starring Clint Eastwood, filmed at the location from 1959 to 1966.

From the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s, it was primarily used as Indian Dunes Park, a motorcycle and off-road vehicle track. Because of insurance liability problems, the Newhall company decided to use the terrain only for filming. Its most recent decision to convert it to farming came about gradually, Lauffer said, as the demand for crops began to increase.

“Our primary purpose is, and always has been, farming,” said Lauffer. “We have a demand to increase our crops, and this is good land.”


But Harland and Franco suspect that the company plans to use the land for real estate development. “They’re going to develop the spot immediately, believe me,” Franco said. Lauffer admitted that the company hopes to develop other areas of the Newhall Ranch, but now has no plans for Indian Dunes.

“China Beach” has a contract to use the site through the end of its fourth season of shooting next spring. Only “China Beach,” she said, will continue to do filming as farming begins.

Harland said it’s too early to search for new sites. He may never need to start; unless ratings improve, the show might be canceled this season. Harland said the crew will miss Indian Dunes for emotional and practical reasons. “I’m sure it will be difficult for them,” he said. “They became attached to the area.

“And I can remember the mornings when it was colder than a well digger’s toe, and by afternoon, you’re sweating your tail off. We’ll miss that variety of climates too.” He said the show also frequently benefited from using other sets on the property, such as the one constructed for “Tour of Duty,” which aired on CBS from 1987 till this year. “But everyone’s always been flexible, and if the network wants us, we’ll find a way to adjust.”


Franco worries about the effect on the film industry.

“The first place anyone thinks of when you want to be in the zone and have a lot of choices is Indian Dunes,” he said. “You drive right there and you have got everything. I don’t know where the next best place will be.”

Rawlins said the full extent of the loss won’t be known for months.

“The complaints we’re getting now are from people who wanted to shoot there in the near future,” she said. “I think it will be missed a lot when people in six months call to ask about it and find out it can’t be used anymore.”